Rene — Europe's new Iron Curtain

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Europe’s new Iron Curtain
Economic wall separates haves from have-nots
By Tom Hundley
Tribune correspondent
3:56 AM CDT, March 29, 2008
TERESPOL, Poland – A few stray dogs and a bedraggled band of women
with gold-capped teeth compete for the thin shaft of afternoon
sunlight that warms a corner of the decrepit railway station waiting
The women, from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, are
smugglers. There is no secret about that. They are busy putting on
layer after layer of new clothing, suiting up for their daily battle
with the border police.
These days there is a lot of talk about a borderless Europe, but in
this corner of the continent, on the eastern crust of Poland along the
banks ofthe River Bug, there is no mistaking the omnipresence of the
border. In many ways, this border has become Europe’s new Iron
Curtain. The divide is no longer ideological; the wall is between rich
and poor, between Europe’s haves and have-nots.
The modern concept of national borders as clear, demarcated lines is a
European invention that has been exported around the globe, providing
a ready source of conflict and bloodshed. Even in today’s relatively
peaceful and settled Europe, borders remain flash points. Think of
Kosovo, where Europe’s newest hostile border has been drawn.
Europe’s borders have changed radically in the past generation. More
than 8,000 miles of new national borders have been created on the
continent since 1989, mostly in Europe’s eastern half. But the whole
notion of borders also has undergone a profound physical and
psychological transformation.
The primary impetus for this transformation was the collapse of
communism and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin
Wall. But almost as important has been the ascendance of the European
Union and its commitmentto the free movement of people across the
borders of its 27 member states.
According to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the price of creating this
remarkable zone of free movement has been the creation of a hard
external border that seals off the EU from its poorer neighbors. “This
wasn’t the intent of Schengen, but it has been one of the major side
effects,” he said.
Schengen refers to a series of agreements implemented in 1995 that did
away with internal border controls across much of Western Europe. The
so-called Schengen Zone was expanded in December to include Poland,
Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Slovenia and Malta.
Along the EU’s eastern frontier, some people have started to refer to
the external border as the Schengen Wall -or, less felicitously, the
New Iron Curtain.
EU officials cringe at the Iron Curtain reference. They like to talk
about “smart” borders secured by thermal cameras, satellite monitors,
biometric data banks and other high-tech whistles and bells.
A Cold War feel
But here in Terespol, the border between Poland and Belarus still has
a Cold War chill to it. The border on the Polish side may be smart,
but on the Belarus side it consists of old-fashioned electrified
fences, watchtowers and unsmiling guards.
This was and still is Josef Stalin’s border. At the start of World War
II, the Soviet dictator grabbed a large chunk of eastern Poland,
annexed it to Belarus and never gave it back. After the war, 2.35
million Poles living in this territory were resettled in northern and
western Poland; about a million Poles remained.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communities along this
border began to reknit. Cross-border trade started to flourish,
nourishing the economy on both sides. Poland, with its eager embrace
of Western Europe, was always going to be the richer of the two, but
it was Belarus’ extreme bad luck to fall into the political grasp of
Alexander Lukashenko, a thuggish boss of the Soviet old school.
Under Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, the economy is stuck in
“It’s not hard to find a job at home, but it will only pay $100 a
month. Even in Belarus, that’s not enough to live on,” said Ludmilla,
one of the women in the Terespol railway station.
So she and the other women eke out a living as traders, filling
suitcases and plastic trash bags with cheap clothing and other
merchandise bought in Polish wholesale markets and smuggling it back
into Belarus for resale.
But their modest enterprise has been thwarted by Viktor Lukashenko,
the president’s son and heir apparent who also happens to be governor
of the Breskaja district on Poland’s border. The younger Lukashenko
decreed that only three items of new clothing could be imported per
‘For us, it’s the end’
“Our president, whom we cannot get rid of, and his son, who will
replace him for another 60 years, want everyone in Belarus to be
poor,” complained Ludmilla, who declined to give her last name out of
fear of government harassment.
To get around the restriction, the women in the railway station
squeeze into as many layers of clothing as they can-perhaps tucking a
small item or two between the layers-before getting on the train and
taking their chances. Some of the women make two or three round trips
each day.
Soon they will be facing a much more daunting obstacle.
When Poland joined the Schengen Zone in December, it agreed to impose
much stricter border controls on its Belarusian neighbors. For the
time being, Ludmilla and the others are entering Poland on
multiple-entry visas obtained before December. When those visas
expire, they will have to apply for Schengen visas.
These are much more expensive-about $100 for a single entry=80’and
require extensive supporting documentation, including tax and bank
records, proof of employment and letters of invitation from business
partners in Poland.
“For us, it’s the end,” Ludmilla said.
Even for those who are relatively well-off, the Schengen rules pose a
formidable barrier. Ania, a 24-year-old accountant, is an ethnic Pole
fromBelarus who left home to attend college in Poland. After
graduating, she found a job as an accountant in Siedlce, a small city
in eastern Poland about 60 miles from the border.
“My family and I, we felt ourselves to be Polish and members of the
Polish nation even though we lived in Belarus. We always kept Polish
traditions in our home,” said Ania, who also asked that her last name
be withheld to avoid problems in Belarus.
“It’s easier to find a job [in Poland], easier to find an apartment,”
she said. “We always looked to Poland as a place where you could live
a better life. And if a helping hand ever came to Belarus, it was
usually coming from Poland.
“But now we feel cut off from Poland and from the rest of Europe.”
Ania has a 10-year student visa that should enable her to go back and
forth without trouble, but it will be difficult for her family to
visit her in Poland.
When she travels to Belarus, Ania generally takes the train, and when
it stops at Terespol, she often helps the women at the station
transport their goods across the border. Not anymore.
“They are checking everyone so carefully now, I’d be afraid,” she
Geopolitical concerns
Europe’s new external border is a personal inconvenience for Ania and
an overwhelming economic hardship for Ludmilla, but it also raises
concerns on a higher, geopolitical level.
The original Iron Curtain arbitrarily cut Europe in half. The new
divide falls fairly neatly along civilizational lines that separate
the mostly Roman Catholic and Protestant West from the Orthodox East.
That raises questions about the larger meaning of Europe and the
European Union. Though the EU wants nations like Belarus and Ukraine
to look west toward Brussels, its policies may instead be directing
them east toward Moscow, capital of a resurgent and increasingly
autocratic Russia.
“The whole concept behind the EU was the unification of Europe, a
Europe whole and free, as they say,” said Robin Shepherd, an analyst
at Chatham House, a London think tank. “It’s great if you are inside
the EU, but the European countries with the deepest problems – Belarus
– or the countries trying to fight their way out of these
problems-Ukraine-now find a very high barrier is keeping them on the
‘Neighbors, not enemies’
Following the Polish border south through deep forests of birch and
pine, Belarus gives way to Ukraine. The frontier on the Ukrainian side
is markedby a double barrier of electrified fences.
But the power has been off for years, and in stretches the fence is in
obvious disrepair. Border security was tightened a few months ago when
Ukraine began using professional border guards. Before that, army
conscripts patrolled.
On the Polish side, Col. Waldemar Skarbek and his men are in charge of
securing a 150-mile stretch of Europe’s eastern frontier. There’s no
fence, but Skarbek said the new technology provided by the EU is more
than adequate.
Earlier this year, thermal cameras on the Polish side of the border
detected a group of illegal immigrants attempting to cross from the
Ukrainian side. Skarbek and his men watched with some amusement as
the group industriously-but quite unnecessarily – tunneled under the
Ukrainian fence. As soon as they popped up on the Polish side,
Skarbek’s men arrested them.
It used to be that Ukrainians didn’t need a visa to travel to
Poland. Now they do, and Skarbek seemed less than enthused about his
new mandate to enforce that requirement.
“These are our neighbors, not our enemies,” he said.
Jadwiga Zenowicz, head of Polish customs for the same stretch of
border, feels the same way.
“My mother, who is 80, was born in Luck, which used to be in Poland
but is now in Ukraine,” she said. “In this part of Europe, you have
two nations that want to live on the same territory and want to get
along with each other.”
Being outside the EU and the Schengen Zone puts Ukraine in a very
disadvantaged position, Zenowicz said. “I understand why it has to be,
butthat doesn’t mean we are happy about it.”
Price of EU admission
This understanding, according to Yale’s Snyder, was the price of
admission to the EU for Poland and the other former East Bloc
countries that now form the eastern rampart of Fortress Europe.
Poland and the others had to “earn trust in the eyes of their EU
counterparts,” he said. “To convince the EU that they belong, they had
… to show that they understand that other states such as Belarus and
Ukraine do not.”
When Poland became a member of the Schengen Zone in December, the
immediate impact was a colossal traffic jam. Trucks were backed up for
more than a dozen miles in Poland and Ukraine. Delays of up to four
days were reported.
One reason for the backup was confusion about the new rules. Another
was a job action by Polish customs officials unhappy with their low
wages. Ukrainians, angry about the new visa rules, also contributed
to the mess by blocking traffic on their side.
“Do we feel cut off? Absolutely, and it’s very painful and
unnecessary,” said Bohdan Huk, a Ukrainian writer and Polish citizen
who lives in Przemysl, a mixed city on the Polish side of the border.
“Before 1989, nobody would believe the changes we have seen in the
East,” Huk said. “But now, with Poland’s integration into the EU, we
are beginning to understand that not all of what has happened is
completely good. The West has closed itself. I think it’s rather
obvious that this will have a negative impact on the democratization
process in the East.”
Snyder agreed: “You want Ukrainian, Belarusian and also Russian elites
to have some sense that they belong to Europe,” he said. “But if you
can’t get into a country, you feel like a second-class citizen sitting
in the back of the bus.”
_thundley@tribune.com_ (mailto:thundley@tribune.com)